Tag Archives: humility

20 June: He comes and goes, like the ferry-boat.

XXI Century Ferryboat, Mallaig, Scotland.

Tagore is writing in the last years of the XIX Century from Bengal, a region today split between India and Bangladesh.


Why is there always this deep shade of melancholy over the fields and river banks, the sky and the sunshine of our country? I came to the conclusion that it is because with us Nature is obviously the more important thing. The sky is free, the fields limitless; and the sun merges them into one blazing whole.

In the midst of this, man seems so trivial. He comes and goes, like the ferry-boat, from this shore to the other; the babbling hum of his talk, the fitful echo of his song, is heard; the slight movement of his pursuit of his own petty desires is seen in the world’s market-places: but how feeble, how temporary, how tragically meaningless it all seems amidst the immense aloofness of the Universe! The contrast between the beautiful, broad, unalloyed peace of Nature—calm, passive, silent, unfathomable,—and our own everyday worries—paltry, sorrow-laden, strife-tormented, puts me beside myself as I keep staring at the hazy, distant, blue line of trees which fringe the fields across the river.

Where Nature is ever hidden, and cowers under mist and cloud, snow and darkness, there man feels himself master; he regards his desires, his works, as permanent; he wants to perpetuate them, he looks towards posterity, he raises monuments, he writes biographies; he even goes the length of erecting tombstones over the dead. So busy is he that he has not time to consider how many monuments crumble, how often names are forgotten!

From Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore.

The war in Ukraine should remind us that monuments do crumble and most names are forgotten. So are we and our desires tragically meaningless? We are certainly strife-tormented, but is the Universe aloof, or is it just that so much of our works look trivial set against Creation? Christians assert that behind ‘Nature’ or the ‘Universe’ is a loving Creator whose Spirit hovered over the Deep and will fill our hearts with Love, if we allow it to happen.

The Spirit may inspire some to study and contemplate the stars and galaxies which do make our works look trivial, but it is these very works – the telescopes, the computer-driven maths – that give us that sense of wonder, of littleness, and please God, of humility. The Spirit inspires others to practical love of fellow human beings or to revive and restore our living but damaged planet. We are given the power of reason to use as humble, fellow creators, not to despait, nor to amass a personal fortune, because there is nothing better to be done in a melancholy world. We are people of hope!

Come, Holy Spirit and kindle in us the power of your Love.

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8June: Vita Brevis.

Dunstan worshipping the Risen Lord.

This life is short, and we are not important. Art by Saint Dunstan, philosophising by Tagore.

What a to-do there is over this tiny bit of life! To think of the quantity of land and trade and commerce which go to furnish its commissariat* alone, the amount of space occupied by each individual throughout the world, though one little chair is large enough to hold the whole of him! Yet, after all is over and done, there remains only material for two hours’ thought, some pages of writing!

What a negligible fraction of my few pages would this one lazy day of mine occupy! But then, will not this peaceful day, on the desolate sands by the placid river, leave nevertheless a distinct little gold mark even upon the scroll of my eternal past and eternal future?

Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore.

*Commisariat ia a military term for the supplies of food and equipment.

Did Saint Dunstan count it a lazy day when he spent his time engrossed in drawing this picture? It is a peaceful picture, with the saint content to be close to his Lord, touching the hem of his garment. (Luke 8.44) Against the events in history that he was involved with as abbot and archbishop, he chooses to show himself as a stocky, insignificant monk, seeking the grace of God to sustain him in all his works.

May we value the quiet moments that come our way, and find time to put ourselves in the presence of God when they arise … not that He is ever absent when life is hectic.

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28 March: Pius V on Lenten Fasting.

Photo by CD.

Here is a prayer attributed to Pope Saint Pius V to bring us back to Lenten observances.


Lord, look with favour
on your household.
Grant that,
though our flesh be humbled
by abstinence from food,
our souls, hungering for you,
may be resplendent in your sight.

I found this prayer in Scott Hahn’s Lenten Cookbook p34; see our review on 12 February.

The idea of humbling our flesh suggests that it may have become too proud, rather like the various parts of the Body of Christ saying they don’t need each other (1 Corinthians 12). When all is going well we can have such delusions of grandeur and importance, but we can be brought low by disease, such as covid-19 happening to ourselves or to dear ones; by circumstances beyond our control; accepting these can be one way of humbling our flesh. And so too can little sacrifices in food and drink. And let’s remember that we are all members of the one body of Christ: any savings from fasting and abstinence could be shared with others through CAFOD, SVP or any other agency.

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7 October, Our Lady of the Rosary: Review of The World of Marian Apparitions by Wincenty Laszewski

My Catholic primary school taught us stories from the Bible, one between two at a shared desk. We also heard about miracles outside Scripture, including visitations of Our Lady, especially at Lourdes and Fatima. I came to feel the emphasis on these ‘private revelations’ was excessive, but visiting England’s Walsingham, a shrine for almost 1000 years, set me thinking about the role of Mary ever since.

We’d been told that only Catholics honour Mary, yet Walsingham has beautiful Anglican and Orthodox Shrines as well as the Catholic one. Each one made us welcome. We learned that icons like the Mother of Perpetual Succour came from the East. Later, joining  ecumenical pilgrimages meant walking and talking, eating and praying together.

This book may inspire the reader to go on pilgrimage to one of the featured shrines, or to turn the pages while voyaging in imagination, beads in your hand, a candle and pilgrim’s shell beside you. The many well-chosen pictures will help you to be there. 

Doctor Samuel Johnson, a devout 18th Century Anglican philosopher, had this to say regarding pilgrimage: ‘To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible’. In other words, there is room to be led by feelings as well as by intellectual theology when visiting shrines.

The book may set you thinking about Mary and her place in the life of the Church. When it first opened Walsingham’s Anglican shrine attracted charges of ‘Mariolatry’ – idolising Mary. Less stridently, others judge the honour given to Mary to be obscuring her Son. But on the Feast of the Assumption this year, Pope Francis pointed out that Mary was and remains humble, so that God was able to beget his Son through her and pour out blessings through her, down to today. So it is in humility that we should set out on pilgrimage, on foot, by transport, or through the imagination. 

Whoever receives an apparition can expect grief from a naturally sceptical world and a deliberately sceptical Church which has to discern the spirits at work in these incidents. But once the Church has accepted an apparition as genuine, we can follow Johnson’s advice: ‘Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.’

Wincenty Laszewski has limited his explorations to apparitions beginning from the late 19th Century, thus omitting Lourdes which still witnesses renewal of faith as well as physical and emotional healings. Renewal and healing occur at other shrines too, and Laszewski leads us to many across the world.

Fatima, whose Sister Lucia certainly suffered at the hands of the Church, is well known but most of these shrines were new to me. At Beauraing, Belgium, in the 1930s the children who saw and heard Mary came from families indifferent to religion; it was only after the Occupation ended that the local bishop could pronounce the supernatural nature of the events. The children faded into the background, later marrying and raising Christian families. Thus they lived out their response to Mary’s two questions: “Do you love my Son?” and “Do you love me?” 

Far from there, in Ngome, South Africa, a German Benedictine missionary received visions in the 1950s. Sister Reinolda heard from Mary that she should be addressed as ‘Tabernacle of the Most High’, as she had held Jesus, the Host, in her womb and in her arms. It was time for Christians to be ‘a sea of hosts’ to bring Christ’s salvation to the world; a poetic but doctrinally orthodox idea. We are the Body of Christ, as Saint Paul proclaims (1 Corinthians 12:27). Mary also asked for a shrine where seven springs come together.

In Egypt it was at a Coptic Orthodox Church dedicated to Mary that she was seen by thousands of Muslims and Christians on a number of occasions. As always there is scepticism from more than one side, theories of mass suggestion  or natural phenomena or fakery, as Laszewski makes plain. But in the spirit of ecumenism which characterises Egyptian Christianity, the Catholic Church accepts the judgement of the Orthodox Patriarch’s Commission that the apparitions, and subsequent individual healings, were God’s work. 

Scepticism is an honest position to adopt towards apparitions, and always the first stance of the Church which proclaims Christ Crucified, foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). But Mary makes the sign of the cross during many apparitions, indicating that the Cross is central to her message. Those who accept the divine origin of the apparitions should not disdain people who are indifferent or unmoved.

As time goes by, shrines may continue to flourish in ways that the original visionaries could not have expected. Who would have predicted today’s ecumenical scene in Walsingham? Mary was seen here before the Reformation, before even the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity; now it is a place where some of those wounds are being healed. What blessings will be made available to the faithful and the world as these modern shrines find their lasting mission?

A few points regarding Wincenty Laszewski’s labour of love. At p197 he wrongly portrays Frank Duff as seeking permission of St John Paul II to found the Legion of Mary. Duff had begun this work in 1921 in Dublin, more than half a century before meeting the Pope in Poland. Saint Pius X became Pope in 1903, not 1913. Laszewski relates how his predecessor, Leo XIII had a vision of the 20th Century and its evils. The Pope did not reveal details of this event, but Laszewski claims it as a Marian Apparition because Leo championed the Rosary. Pious suppositions are not history!

I would not be alone in scratching my head over Laszewski’s description of Ngome as  a place where natural realities came into contact with the supernatural. Springs of water have always been places where contact with the supernatural is a given, as at the Pool of Bethesda, or Lourdes, or many a holy well. In the words Chesterton put into the mouth of Mary, speaking to King Alfred:

The gates of Heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.

Lord, grant us eyes to see with and to discern your presence in the people we meet.

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4 September, Season of Creation VI: The gift to be simple, III.

We turned to Saint Gregory the Great, see yesterday’s post, after reading this passage from his successor, Good Pope John XXIII, who at this time, November 1948, was Papal Representative in France, well able to comment on ‘cunning minds’ in Vatican diplomacy, especially as he was writing in his journal, for his eyes only! Notice how he links the simplicity of the just man with the scientist’s search for truth.

Oh, the simplicity of the Gospel, of The Imitation of Christ, of the Littler Flowers of Saint Francis, and of the most exquisite passages in Saint Gregory, in his Moralia: ‘The simplicity of the just man is derided’, and the words that follow! I enjoy these pages more and more and return to them with joy. All the wiseacres of this world, and all the cunning minds, including those in Vatican diplomacy, cut such a poor figure in the light of the simplicity and grace shed by this great and fundamental doctrine of Jesus and his saints! This is the surest wisdom, that confounds the learning of this world and, with courtesy and true nobility, is consistent, equally well and even better, with the loftiest achievements in the sphere of science, even of secular and social science, in accordance with the needs of time, place and circumstance.

‘This is the height of philosophy, to be simple with prudence’, as was said by Saint John Chrysostom, my great patron saint of the East.

Lord Jesus, preserve in me the love and practice of this simplicity which, by keeping me humble, makes me more like you and draws and saves the souls of men.

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18 May: Stirring It: II. (Shared Table XXVII)

Pope Benedict hosting Christmas lunch

Pope Benedict created a stir when he invited poor Romans and those living and working with them to a Christmas meal. Jesus caused a less comfortable stir when he was invited to dine with a leading Pharisee.

Jesus had just finished speaking when a Pharisee invited him to dine at his house. He went in and sat down at table. The Pharisee saw this and was surprised that he had not first washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘You Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and plate while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness’

(Luke 11:37-38).

Yesterday we were looking at Luke 11:37-38. I recommend that you scroll back to yesterday’s post it if you weren’t here for it.

As I leave the surface level of this gospel and keep thinking about this scene, I find the text taking hold of my mind more fully. I begin to feel a sense of awe at what Jesus says, and at the courage and brilliance of his handling of the situation. I find that I want Jesus to “stir it”. So much really was at stake, and as I meditate, I become more aware of it. An opportunity was offered to the Pharisee who had invited Jesus for dinner. That dinner – and indeed, the whole of history of Christianity – could have been different had even a few of the religious authorities of Jesus’ day recognised the truth of Jesus’ message – and of his very person. If that evening’s host, for example, had allowed Jesus’ strong words to break through his defences, if he had responded to Jesus with an open heart – well, we don’t know what would have happened. But it’s obvious that the host of that dinner missed a crucially important opportunity that night.

Or, let’s look at the Twelve. Jesus, in fact, “stirs it” with them, also – but in a different way. He is forever challenging their desire to find out who among them is the greatest. He frankly and clearly tells the Twelve that they are missing the point: ‘The greatest among you must be the least,’ and ‘The first shall be last,’ and ‘He who loses his life for my sake will find it’: all of these sayings of Jesus – and many more – teach that the deepest self-giving, not self-aggrandizement, is the hallmark of the true disciple. This a lesson that the Twelve don’t seem able to grasp until much, much later – after Pentecost, in fact. But despite the fact that the Twelve must have repeatedly felt pretty stupid when Jesus lets them know that they are wrong-headed, they act very differently from the defensive Pharisee we see here. They love Jesus and keep on loving him. They recognise that he has the words of eternal life. They don’t understand everything he teaches, but they want to. They are seeking the truth and they know – imperfectly, but they know somehow – that he is Truth. Unlike the dinner-host Pharisee, the apostles keep trying to embrace Jesus’ teaching, and, with the exception of Judas, they stay with him. They must have come to expect that Jesus would stir it. I begin to see that he stirs it with nearly everyone in the gospels at some point.

What does this tell me, then, about my relationship with Jesus? Simply that I mustn’t be surprised when Jesus stirs it in my life. I have given myself to the Lord as well as I am able, but I am a fallen human being, and aspects of my life have not always been in alignment with the self-gift I have made. Jesus has not hesitated to stir this situation, and bring my fragmentation clearly to my awareness. He has done this many times. And I find, as a result of this meditation, that I do not want a compliant Jesus who will overlook immaturity in me. Above all, I do not want Jesus to be the urbane dinner guest who tells amusing stories and takes his leave politely at the end of the meal. Jesus’ meal, in fact, is the Eucharist, where his self-gift is total. He expects nothing less from me, and I expect nothing less of myself. He offers forgiveness, yes. But that does not mean he will look the other way when he sees that something in me needs to change. And I don’t want him to. I hope I continue to find Jesus “stirring it” in my life in order to make me aware that there are things in me that are not what they should be. It has never been easy to be a follower of Jesus. But I know he is Truth, and I pray that I may take full advantage of every graced opportunity for growth that Jesus offers me – stirred or otherwise.

Sister Johanna Caton OSB

Just to round off, here is a collect from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, to be recited while stirring up the Christmas Pudding in November. WT.

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

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26 April: Prostate before the Lord.

Peter (Piotr) Wygnański grew up in Cambridge and was an altar server for 11 years in the parish of St Laurence. He was ordained priest on 25 July 2019 in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Norwich, by Bishop Alan Hopes.

Part of the ordination rite has the deacon lying flat on the floor while prayers are said or sung.

In his homily, Bishop Alan said: “Jesus tells us we must be prepared to share in his suffering and death…and at the heart of our ministry must be humility”. Priesthood, he added, “Is nothing to do with status”.

The Bishop told Peter: “Your prostration before God…is an abandonment of yourself to His love and will” and he encouraged him to “model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross”.

I’m not sure that these two friends from L’Arche Ipswich were thinking of any of that as they got down close to the tulips, but the flowers are given to us by God’s love and will, and by abandoning their upright dignity to wake up and smell the flowers they got closer to His loving gift of tulips, their colour, shape, texture and scent.

If you wait till July you can look up humbly at 3 metres high sunflowers instead!

  • Peter Wygnański’s story shared from the East Anglia diocese website; see link above.
  • Tulip lovers’ photo courtesy of L’Arche Ipswich.

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4 January: The man with a father’s heart

Pope Francis has declared this to be the Year of Saint Joseph, the Man with the Father’s Heart. Here is the thinking behind that, from his letter, Patris Corde – with a Father’s Heart.

Now, one hundred and fifty years after his proclamation as Patron of the Catholic Church by Blessed Pius IX (8 December 1870), I would like to share some personal reflections on this extraordinary figure, so close to our own human experience. For, as Jesus says, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34).

My desire to do so increased during these months of pandemic, when we experienced, amid the crisis, how “our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people, people often overlooked. People who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines, or on the latest television show, yet in these very days are surely shaping the decisive events of our history. Doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests, men and women religious, and so very many others. They understood that no one is saved alone… How many people daily exercise patience and offer hope, taking care to spread not panic, but shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday ways, how to accept and deal with a crisis by adjusting their routines, looking ahead and encouraging the practice of prayer. How many are praying, making sacrifices and interceding for the good of all”.[6] 

Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation. A word of recognition and of gratitude is due to them all.

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July 28: St Francis and the Slugs – a modern legend, II

One wet morning, St. Francis entered a garden, sat down on a bird bath and prayed silently. Then, looking up, he saw those creatures in the garden and he called, “My sister slugs, come here to me and listen to a word from God. A group of them immediately made their way towards him and came up to his feet. At this, the saint said, “Sister slugs, I command you to stop”, and they stopped and pricked up their eye stalks eagerly. Saint Francis addressed the creatures thus:

“Blessed are you, my sister slugs because you are models of true humility. You do not try to be high fliers like other creatures but cling to the earth. You do not try to be anything other than what you are. You do not protect yourselves with hard shells like your cousins the snails, but leave yourselves vulnerable in the open and offer yourselves as food to other creatures. You are despised by cleverer creatures because you are simple and so, rejoice, since God who made you loves you greatly.”

FMSL

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Going viral XXI: seeing Herb Robert clearly

Let us add another post about seeing clearly, bout using our eyes to find beauty even in difficult times. Herb Robert is a humble plant. Here it is growing in a crack between pavement and wall. It’s likely to be passed by, unnoticed, but look at those beautiful leaves in red, pink and green.

I hope there are beauties for you to enjoy wherever you are allowed to walk – Laudato si!

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